Pretty as a pop-up children’s book, and just about as substantial, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” arrives on Broadway following a 30-year history as a beloved Off Broadway sleeper hit and a favorite of high schools, summer camps and probably every other amateur theatrical outfit imaginable, from the East Winnemucca Civic Light Opera on up.
Michael Mayer’s sprightly production has been spruced up with some new material and new songs, but its humble virtues are the same ones you’d remember from the version you a) saw, b) directed or c) starred in at Robin Hood Summer Camp: perky, pleasant tunes, the genial silliness of adults playing little kids (and a beagle), the indelible appeal of Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” creations. The question is whether audiences will find re-experiencing those rather wispy charms — and introducing them to their kids — worth the hefty price of 1999 Broadway tickets.
That said, there is one major change that gives this version a particular sparkle. In the part of Sally, C.B.’s little sister and a role not in the original version of the musical, Kristin Chenoweth is a daffy, delirious delight. Chenoweth is blessed with a naturally childlike quality — tiny stature, big eyes and a tart squeak of a voice that explodes into a Broadway belt as needed. She shines brightest here because she effortlessly gives off the illusion of being a kid acting like an adult, while most of the other performers are clearly adults acting like kids, a more heavy-handed effect.
Protesting an unacceptable grade for her coat hanger sculpture with the assiduousness of a House prosecutor pressing for conviction, or suddenly attacked by a bout of existential angst (“I was jumping rope … and all of a sudden everything seemed so futile”), Chenoweth perfectly captures the unique appeal of Schulz’s creations, deadpan tykes plagued by neuroses well beyond their years.
But is it too much to suggest that the innocent fun in that idea, as it applies to Charlie Brown, has soured a little with the passing decades? Much of the show’s comedy derives from the endless abuse the other kids heap on poor Charlie; his resultant misery we would now instantly define as low self-esteem.
Anthony Rapp plays Charlie with a lightly plaintive touch, but the constant enumeration of Charlie’s faults, his lonely lunch hours, lack of valentines and rejection by his own dog add up to a rather grim picture of childhood. (And I thought “Parade” was a downer!) In the flesh as opposed to newsprint, it’s now hard not to see Charlie Brown as a little kid with a big future on Prozac.
Still, kids aren’t likely to notice any such undercurrents. Rapp and his fellow performers — Ilana Levine as a nasally nasty Lucy, Stanley Wayne Mathis as Schroeder, B.D. Wong as the blanket-clutching Linus — are a generally jubilant bunch, giving their all to putting across a score by Clark Gesner that is sturdy enough to withstand years of revivals without being particularly brilliant.
New songs by musical supervisor Andrew Lippa blend in smoothly, with Sally’s “My New Philosophy” probably the best. Indeed much of Sally’s material, mostly new, has a ’90s edge that the rest of the show lacks (a duet with Roger Bart’s Snoopy that spoofs “Hawaii Five-O” and James Bond pics gives a lift to the saggy first act).
In the surefire role of Schulz’s beagle with attitude, Bart delivers the show’s other standout performance, using a wicked but endearing leer to suggest Snoopy’s devious charm. His “Red Baron” battle, augmented by the clever set designs of David Gallo, kicks off the second act with a comic rush, and he brings it to a climax in the penultimate number, “Suppertime,” delivered with mock-Jolsonesque fervor.
Gallo’s sets are refreshingly unpretentious for this high-tech age, mostly two-dimensional blowups inspired by Schulz’s instantly recognizable style. An oversized couch and an undersized piano also slide around in front of a blank backdrop that’s drenched in an eye-catching array of rich colors.
But despite the high-quality polish and hard work from the creative team behind this revival, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” is still a mere trifle whose pleasant impression barely outlasts its brief running time — a Broadway berth only points up its essentially unassuming nature. Folks returning for nostalgic purposes may be surprised to find that a show that has long lingered in their memory turns out to be so forgettable.